It started with a recording of pianist Rudolf Serkin playing Beethoven. Roger Baker discovered the record in a box of his old albums, and it became a favorite as he played a particular movement over and over again on a turntable in his rustic studio in Cragsmoor. “I got energy from it and started to draw,” he says in John Hazard’s new film, Baker Does Beethoven, adding “I would love to cut Beethoven into a field and have a piano on his lapel.”
Having previously created large-scale images of Elvis, Einstein, the Statue of Liberty and Jimi Hendrix in a field in Ellenville by expertly manipulating a lawnmower, Baker was uniquely qualified to fulfill that farfetched vision. So, back in May of 2016, he took his toned drawing of Beethoven, gridded it, and at a scale of one-half-inch-to-ten-feet, transposed portions of the grid onto a 25-acre field and made some marks on the grass with yellow paint. Working out the pattern in his mind, he then fired up his push-mower and began with the composer’s eyes, which pupil-to-pupil measured 70 feet across. Over a period of a few weeks, he used the mower, along with a zero-turn riding mower and six-foot brush hog attached to the back of a tractor, to fill in the rest of the image, finishing up at the far edges of the field with looser strokes for the hair. “I start doing this dance and let go of any plan,” he says in the film, as the footage shows him zooming around on the tractor. “I don’t know if it looks ridiculous or great, but I just am vulnerable with it. The more I think I have a handle on this, the less I do.”
The completed drawing on the living canvas of grass culminated in a series of performances of Beethoven’s music held on-site. Days later, as the grass grew and the dark and light areas melded together, the image vanished. But fortunately, Hazard was there with his camera throughout the process, taking footage that ultimately resulted in a 50-minute film. It beautifully memorializes the making of the piece, Baker’s soul-filled ruminations and the performances, which include harpist Victoria Drake playing the Piano Sonata No. 14 in C# minor as the rising moon shines through the strings of her instrument and the Ellenville Middle School Fortissimos singing the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Baker Does Beethoven lends the subject a lyricism of its own.
Hazard, a Wawarsing-based cinematographer, has traveled the world working on projects, including Secrets of Egypt’s Lost Queen, which was shot in the tomb of a female pharaoh whose mummy had just been identified by scientists, the first royal identification since King Tut; he also shot extensive footage of the Clash back in the early 1980s, and traveled to Peru with anthropologist Jeremy Narby to film an ancient music festival of the indigenous Awajun people for a short titled Woodstock in the Amazon. Baker Does Beethoven is the first film that he also directed and edited. It premiered at Shadowland Stages in Ellenville this spring to enthusiastic audiences, and will be shown again sometime over the summer at the Stone Church in Cragsmoor. Hazard hopes to have the film streamed eventually, and plans to approach other venues, as well as PBS and film festivals.
Drone photographer Ben Carson captures the image from above, which has the graphic quality of a Warhol and is not recognizable from the ground. In one magical sequence, the drone camera captures the piano from far above: a dark speck on the green-patterned field that becomes recognizable as the drone zooms in and hovers sideways as pianist Akiko Sasaki plays Beethoven; Hazard slows down the speed as he cuts to her face and hands as she finishes the piece with a flourish. The work by recording engineer Steve Bill, who also has a house in the area, ensures excellent acoustics, despite the challenge of playing on a platform in a field.
The film evolved naturally. “I met Roger 10 or 12 years ago. Anyone who gets to know Roger finds it’s the easiest thing in the world to say, ‘Yes, I will help you,”” says Hazard. “We had no money [to make the film] – just enthusiasm and a willingness to do it.” After Baker asked Hazard if he could shoot some video of his Beethoven project, “I found it pretty easy to show up and shoot…This was a project where I could make a 6 a.m. call and still sleep in my bed. I just kept showing up.” Hazard notes that Baker was a natural subject for the camera, with “his loose and easy natural repertoires, his ability to talk about what he does and play with it, the crazy riffs about quantum mechanics. He reads going to sleep at night.”
Baker, whose commissioned murals and artworks grace several local businesses, first came to the Ellenville area 25 years ago to hang-glide. When he was in his early 20s, he traveled the country as an itinerant artist and hang-glider, stashing his equipment on the roof of his car and bringing along his dog and brushes. “I’d walk into a town and go to a local firehouse and tell the fire chief, ‘I’m in town and not flying today and can touch up the gold leaf on your firetrucks’” – a task that would inevitably lead to paid work. Connecting with others and nurturing community still comes as second nature to him: “I hang out in shops where people make and build stuff. It’s a network where you get invited in. If I have a flat tire, I could make a phone call and three people would come over.”
He and the fellow members of his hang-gliding club would aim for a bull’s-eye mown into the grass of the field when they landed. As he recounts in the film, one day a member cut the grass in a way that eliminated the target, which left a “clean slate” and inspired him to create an image of the Statue of Liberty, for the Fourth of July. That was back in 2000. Working from numerous drawings, “I settled on one and we cut it, working off a central point…Once you get the reference for the face, the rest is pretty easy.” Amazingly, six or seven months later he discovered a satellite image of the piece in reverse; though the cuts were no longer visible, the infrared photography from the satellite had picked up the differences in temperature from the higher and lower patterned segments of grass.
The monumental grass portraits were mown on fields owned by Kelly’s Farm, south of Ellenville. They were located on the east side of Sandburg Creek and visible from a nearby overlook, which gave people a viewing spot. Plus, “People took their own airplanes [to the field]. The last day I was cutting Elvis, there were 36 airplanes circling it.” Beethoven was located on the other side of the creek and hence not visible from the overlook, although it was the first piece to be photographed using a drone.
Baker has become something of a local celebrity, featured on PBS and in The New York Times for his Beethoven portrait. Baker Does Beethoven, which utilizes archival footage from a film of earlier projects by Gary Planken, could broaden that reach, if Hazard is able to get it out there; his cinematic instincts, which transform a man riding a lawnmower into a subject of fascination (no mean feat), and poetic rhythms in matching sound to image make that likely. Hazard says that he was able to edit the film himself due to fortuitous timing: Just previous to the project, he was hired to make a film about the Ellenville Regional Hospital’s 50th anniversary, which provided him with the editing software and platform.
But as spring arrives, it seems that Baker’s mostly thinking about grass. The success of his pieces is partly due to his timing and sensitivity to the nuances of weather, such as how a day of sunshine will dry out the low-cut grass, turning it blond, while the taller grass casts shadows, darkening it. He has his eye on the Hurley Flats: “I would love to cut locally a little north of here, on the fields of the Farm Hub,” he said. “I would love to push a piano onto a field near Kingston and do Chopin.”